SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — Carlos Gonzalez already had noticed the growing number of empty chairs and increasingly quiet slot machines at the Puerto Rico casino where he worked as he mulled a job offer in the Dominican Republic.
It was 2013, and Puerto Rico’s economy had been in a downward slide for nearly a decade. Gonzalez didn’t know it at the time, but the once-popular casino where he worked as a marketing manager would soon close.
He thought of his family and friends and the reasons he moved back to Puerto Rico in the first place after spending more than 20 years in New Jersey. It took him several months to make a decision — “It’s not easy to leave your land,” the Puerto Rico native said — but he finally did.
“I never imagined it. Never!” Gonzalez said with a laugh. “I even asked myself 2,000 times whether I really was moving to the Dominican Republic. I told myself it was crazy.”
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The flow of migrants through the 80 miles (130 kilometers) of churning waters that separate Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic has typically moved in one direction for more than half a century: toward the U.S. territory. But the island’s deep economic crisis is reversing this trend, with a growing number of financially strapped Puerto Ricans moving to the neighboring Caribbean country to open businesses and escape economic chaos that has scared away even many Dominican migrants.
Officials say it’s hard to quantify exactly how many Puerto Ricans have moved to the Dominican Republic in recent years because they fall under the general category of U.S. citizens, but they say the trend is undeniable.
“It used to be extremely rare for a Puerto Rican to stop by and seek a work visa,” said Franklin Grullon, the Dominican consul in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. “There’s been a surge in all types of visas, and we believe this flow will only increase.”
The majority of Puerto Ricans seeking business visas are young to middle-aged men, and many request permission to work in the tourism sector because they speak English and find it easy to get a job, Grullon said. They are drawn by the Dominican Republic’s robust economy, which grew 7 percent in 2015 for the second consecutive year, making it the strongest in the Latin American and Caribbean region. The government has credited vigorous performances in banking, construction and tourism, noting that a record 5.6 million tourists visited the Dominican Republic last year.
There’s also been a big increase in Puerto Rican professionals such as architects and engineers traveling to the Dominican Republic to work because of that country’s booming construction sector, said German Monroig, executive director of the office of Puerto Rican affairs.
“There’s been a considerable change in the last two years,” he said.
It’s hard for Puerto Rican professionals to find steady jobs given the island’s economy, which has stagnated for nine years as the U.S. territory of 3.5 million people struggles with a 12 percent unemployment rate and a $72 billion public debt load the governor has said is unpayable and needs restructuring. About a third of people born in Puerto Rico now live on the U.S. mainland, seeking to escape tax increases, higher utility bills and dwindling job opportunities.
“Puerto Rico became very, very difficult for the casino sector,” the 48-year-old Gonzalez said. “I left just in time. … All my friends tell me that the best thing I did was to leave, that Puerto Rico’s situation is crazy.”
Puerto Ricans aren’t the only ones leaving.
Grullon said Dominicans are increasingly moving back to their country, and he noted that the flow of Dominicans entering the U.S. territory illegally also has decreased dramatically: The U.S. Coast Guard detained 1,565 Dominicans in 2004, compared with 133 in 2014.
“What’s surprising about this trend is that up until now, the migration had been from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, and the main motive was a difference in salary and more jobs,” said Jorge Duany, an anthropology professor at Florida International University who has long studied migration patterns between the two.
In the early 1900s, Puerto Ricans were moving to the Dominican Republic to work in the country’s thriving sugar industry until the Great Depression hit. Then Dominican migrants began moving to Puerto Rico in the 1960s and 70s because of the island’s booming industrial sector. Roughly 200,000 Dominicans are now estimated to live in the U.S. territory, though there are no precise figures because many live on the island illegally.
Now, it’s the lure of more jobs and a powerful economy in the Dominican Republic that is attracting Puerto Ricans, including 51-year-old Francisco Perez.
He worked more than 20 years for an insurance company in Puerto Rico, but began to see his income shrink as car sales on the island plummeted. When a job opportunity presented itself in late 2014 to work for a Puerto Rican company in the Dominican Republic that paid in U.S. dollars, he took it.
“I told myself I had to do what I had to do given the importance I have as my family’s provider,” said the father of four. “When I got here and saw that it was like Puerto Rico back in the 90s, that the economy was doing well, I stayed. I know there are a lot of Puerto Ricans looking over this way to grow their businesses.”
Among them is Gonzalez.
He originally moved to the Dominican Republic to work as a marketing manager for a Hard Rock Cafe in the popular beach resort of Punta Cana, but he quit nearly two months ago to open his own tour company there.
“We’re at full blast,” he said, noting that he already has several contracts with large hotels in the region. “This is on the up and up.”
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.